One of my life-long delights has been shared by untold millions - walking into a bookshop and browsing.
Maybe I would buy, maybe not - depends on what took my eye. The thrill was in what I would find. What previously undiscovered gem, an author I had never read before, a new one I’d seen reviewed, a book I had been toying with for ages…
But, I am intensely sad to say, for three or four years now, to quote BB King, the thrill has if not completely gone but it’s a far shadow of what it once was.
I still love books, I read constantly, I’ve written two, my taste is wide, I have loads of them and I can’t ever imagine a time when books weren’t one of the most important part of my life.
So, what has happened?
The fact is entering a high-street bookshop these days is like being blinded by sudden light. It’s impossible to focus. My heads spins. The sheer volume of books on show has become so great unless you are already very sure on what you want browsing is a now oddly a pressurised activity.
Another issue is the huge growth in celebrity and spin off books filling the shelves and displays. More often than not I take one dispiriting look then walk out.
We all know we live in a celeb world – from TV to royalty, from politics to sport – but it has now so infected the publishing arena that instead of being comforting sanctuaries for the mind the big bookshops are just another celeb marketing device or ad space,
The famous cook or singer now spouting how to live advice.
The unending stream of well-known gurus teaching us how to do this or do that in search of the perfect existence.
The hundreds and thousands of memoirs, often ghost-written, of people you may have seen on a screen for five minutes.
The relentless new cookbooks from that bloke or bloke-ess off the TV who has a new programme on yet another aspect of cooking to exploit - the 15 minute dinner, the 10 minute cheat, the 5 minute roast…
The stacks of novels by celebs who have probably never written a word before their agent swung a lucrative book deal because they are… celebs (NOT the wonderful Richard Osman of The Thursday Murder Club fame who is a true wordsmith).
The plethora of celebs who have eyed the JK Rowling main chance and pumped out yet another ‘children’s book’, with a lookalike front cover of the guy who is selling the most at the moment.
And, of course, the torrents of books about The Queen and the Royal Family because of the Platinum Jubilee - although there's never a year when Royal books do not pepper the bookshops. There's always a celebration year, a wayward Prince, a dress-horse Princess, a Diana retrospective or whatever to splurge about
A vital word for the smaller, independent bookshops. Often oases in the deserts, they are usually well worth the visit. Yet even these - for sales survival really - have their layers of celeb and other padding.
Funnily enough, the charity shop book shelves are now often the place to find a winner. I find myself browsing these it seems far more than a celeb infested main bookshop.
More and more the blinding light effect is driving me to buy books on-line, although this brings with it an enduring sense of guilt for not buying in the traditional way and for further boosting the coffers of a tech billionaire. There's still a mass of celeb fluff online but you can use filters to by-pass much of it.
Today, of course, there is also the e-book. 80% of the books I get are now digital – as are my magazines and newspapers – and I read off of my phone and other devices. I am not one of those purists who believe only the actual paper in the hand constitutes a ‘book’. If the content is true and right in my eyes then it doesn’t matter in what form I do the reading. Same for audiobooks. Some say listening to one is not the same as reading, but for the right book the audio version can be a better or more flexible option, such as listening while driving.
Many books, of course, still need to be read and experienced in paper form – my walking guides to the Lake District and other areas for example, books on nature and art perhaps and the books, new and old, I view as ‘special’ such as Salingers, McEwans, Tartt’s, Macfarlanes (there are so many). These always find their way onto my bookshelves.
The thrill from the lure of bookshops may have have been heavily diluted, but one very unique and hallowed store will always remain clear and magical, untainted by any blinding light as the day I first entered it so many years ago. Shakespeare and Company, tucked in its little corner on the bank of the River Seine in Paris just across from Notre Dame, is, for me, perfect – what entering a bookshop should always be. Crossing a bridge into calm, a peace where you can explore any world at your own pace.
Shakespeare and Company is loved throughout the world as such a place – still, even today, in the shark-infested world of celebs. Sure, it may have its own splattering of such stuff, but the store, as it always has been, is overwhelmingly devoted to writers and their truths. Any marketing comes as a distant trail in the wake of their words. Whenever you are in Paris make sure you check it out.
Shakespeare and Company - https://shakespeareandcompany.com